Get Smart: Kirby’s carves his own path to dynasty at Georgia


ATLANTA — Kirby Smart landed his first coaching job because the price was right.

Simple as that.

“We had only $8,000 to pay a guy,” remembered Chris Hatcher, the coach who gave Smart his break at Division II Valdosta State more than two decades ago. “We were the perfect match for a guy that had no coaching experience.”

From those humble beginnings – overseeing the defensive backs at a small school near the Georgia-Florida line on a poverty-level salary – Smart has evolved into one of college football’s most dominant forces, the $10 million-a-year architect of a budding dynasty.

Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs will try to become the first team in a decade to win back-to-back national titles when they take on upstart TCU in the championship game in suburban Los Angeles.

That the Bulldogs, with a 14-0 record and the Southeastern Conference crown, now have a shot at joining an elite group of repeat champions is really not at all that surprising in the current context of the program.

But when you consider what Smart has done since taking over at his alma mater from Mark Richt in 2016, the journey takes on a far more impressive luster.

The Bulldogs were a very good program under Richt.

Smart made them great.

That’s just what former athletic director Greg McGarity had in mind when he hired the guy who was Nick Saban‘s defensive coordinator at Alabama but had never been a head coach.

During the interview process, Smart’s vision of where he wanted to take Georgia was extremely specific, from the staff he wanted to hire to a detailed accounting of the financial commitment needed to take Georgia to the next level.

Still, there were many who questioned if the Bulldogs were making the right move. For every Kirby Smart, there are a dozen Scott Frosts – those seemingly perfect coaching hires that don’t work out.

“Look, every hire is a gamble,” McGarity, who retired from Georgia in 2020 and now runs the Gator Bowl, said in a phone interview. “I don’t think there’s ever been any AD or president who doesn’t think their hire is gonna be successful … but we all know it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Smart, of course, worked out just fine. Since struggling a bit in his first season, Georgia has posted a record of 72-10, lost only five regular-season SEC games, and – most impressively – supplanted Alabama as the nation’s most dominant program.

Smart was a hard-nosed safety at Georgia in the late 1990s, and his immediate dream was to play in the NFL. But, after failing to hear his name called in the NFL draft and getting cut by the Indianapolis Colts, it was only natural that coaching would be his next step.

His father was a high school coach, and young Kirby had been paying close attention all along the way.

After getting his man for $8,000 – and, really, there was no one else willing to take the job – Hatcher quickly recognized what a bargain it was.

“Once I got to know him and watch him him coach, I realized that – first of all, he’s extremely smart and he’s a tremendous worker,” said Hatcher, now the coach at Alabama’s Samford University. “And he brought to the team — what’s the right word for it? – yeah, he’s a very intense guy, but it was more of a competitive spirit that he had about him.”

Smart moved on after two highly successful seasons at Valdosta State, got his graduate degree from Florida State and then began the most significant working relationship of his career.

Saban, who was then the head coach at LSU, hired Smart as his defensive backs coach in 2004. He would be Smart’s boss and mentor for 10 of the next 11 seasons, the only interruption being a single season as Richt’s running backs coach.

In 2008, after an ill-fated stint in the NFL and a rebuilding year at Alabama, Saban was ready to unleash perhaps the greatest dynasty in the history of college football. Smart was his defensive coordinator and right-hand man as the Crimson Tide ripped off four national titles in an eight-year span, gleaning many of the lessons that would serve him so well running his own program.

“He learned from probably the greatest of all time,” Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett said. “He learned and he took notes … and then he made it his.”

Bennett has been along for most of the ride. He arrived at Georgia as a walk-in 2017, which was Smart’s breakout year after going a middling 8-5 in his debut season. The Bulldogs won their first SEC title in a dozen years and reached the College Football Playoff title game, where they lost to Saban and the Tide in an overtime thriller.

Even in defeat, it was already clear that Smart was far more than just Saban Lite.

“He is a big believer in discipline and schedule and all that stuff. And that’s good and fine, but he’s also brilliant. He learns,” Bennett said. “And everything at the end of the day is about the University of Georgia winning. That goes from our facilities, goes to recruiting, raising money, practice, recovery, nutrition, mental health, everything.”

Smart preaches many of the same fundamentals that define Saban’s coaching philosophy – organization, attention to detail, everyone pulling in the same direction – but the willingness to try new things, such as having his players do yoga at end of practice every, is also at the core of his success.

After losing a record 15 players to the NFL draft, including five first-rounders off a fearsome defense, Smart was eager to learn the keys to sustaining success. He didn’t turn to those you might think, instead focusing on those who had failed in the business world, such as former video game giant Blockbuster.

“We have a couple in-house sports psychologists that we talked about how the mighty fall and some business structures, the Blockbuster model, and some different models where ego got the best of organizations in the business world,” Smart said.

While it’s essential to evolve, Smart doesn’t’ back away from his convictions, either.

Let’s not forget that plenty of skeptics were calling for Bennett to be replaced by former starting quarterback JT Daniels after the Bulldogs lost the 2021 SEC championship game to Alabama.

Smart wasn’t swayed. He knew there was something special about this former walk-on that no one else could see.

The Bulldogs haven’t lost since. Bennett was a Heisman Trophy finalist this season and has been the offensive MVP in Georgia’s last four postseason games.

In the CFP semifinal against Ohio State, Smart might have saved the season when he noticed a strange formation and called a timeout a split-second before the Buckeyes tried a fake punt in the fourth quarter.

If the fake has been successful, Ohio State probably wins the game. Instead, the Bulldogs rallied for a 42-41 victory and a chance at history.

“These teams always say, `We want Bama! We want Bama!’ They’re gonna have to update that to, `We want Georgia!”‘ said Kirk Herbstreit, who will be in the booth for the national title game. “Kirby is going an amazing job. They are the equal to Bama. And if they win, he’s the new standard in the sport.”

Yep, Smart had a vision for this program.

Now, everyone can see it.

Georgia extends contract for AD Josh Brooks, plans two new football practice fields

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ATHENS, Ga. – On the heels of a second straight national football championship, Georgia has rewarded athletic director Josh Brooks a contract extension that ties him to the Bulldogs through at least 2029.

The athletic association board, wrapping up its annual spring meeting Friday at a resort on Lake Oconee, also announced plans for a new track and field facility that will free up space for two more football practice fields.

Brooks’ new contract will increase his salary to $1.025 million a year, with annual raises of $100,000.

The 42-year-old Brooks, who took over the athletic department in 2021 after Greg McGarity retired, called the Georgia job “a dream for me” and said he hopes to spend the rest of his career in Athens.

“I am extremely grateful,” Brooks said. “I got into this business 20-plus years ago as a student equipment manager. My first job at Louisiana-Monroe was making $20,000 a year in football operations.”

The Georgia board approved a fiscal 2024 budget of $175.2 million, a nearly 8% increase from the most recent budget of $162.2 million and the sign of a prosperous program that is flush with money after its success on the gridiron.

The school received approval to move forward with its preliminary plans for a new track and field facility, which will be built across the street from the complex hosting the soccer and and softball teams.

The current track stadium is located adjacent to the Butts-Mehre athletic facility, which hosts the practice fields and training facilities for the football program.

Georgia lost a chunk of its outdoor fields when it built a new indoor practice facility. After the new track and field stadium is completed, the current space will be converted to two full-length, grass football practice fields at the request of coach Kirby Smart.

“He wants to find efficient ways to practice, and there is a lot of truth to the issues we’ve had with our current practice fields,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of strain on our turf facilities staff to keep that field in great shape when half the day it is getting shade, so that has been a challenge as well. For our football program, it is better to practice on grass fields than (artificial) turf, so to be able to have two side-by-side grass fields is huge. It makes for a much more efficient practice.”

The new track and field complex, which will continue to be named Spec Towns Track, will also include an indoor facility, the first of its kind in the state of Georgia.

Iowa AD Gary Barta announces retirement after 17 years at Big Ten school

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa athletic director Gary Barta will retire on August 1 after 17 years at the university, the school announced Friday.

Barta, 59, is one of the longest-tenured athletic directors in a Power Five conference. He was hired by Iowa in 2006 after being the AD at Wyoming.

An interim director will be announced next week, Iowa said.

In September, Iowa hired former Ball State athletic director Beth Goetz to be deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer, putting her in position to possibly succeed Barta.

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve in this role the past 17 years,” Barta said in a statement. “This decision didn’t come suddenly, nor did it come without significant thought, discussion, and prayer.”

“That said, I’m confident this is the right time for me and for my family.”

Iowa won four NCAA national team titles and 27 Big Ten team titles during Barta’s tenure. The women’s basketball team is coming off an appearance in the national championship game and the wrestling team is coming off a second-place finish at the NCAA championships.

Barta served as the chairman of the College Football Playoff committee in 2020 and 2021.

He faced heavy criticism over more than $11 million in settlements for lawsuits in recent years alleging racial and sexual discrimination within the athletic department.

Lawsuits filed by former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and associate athletics director Jane Meyer led to a $6.5 million payout.

Iowa had to pay $400,000 as part of a Title IX lawsuit brought by athletes after it cut four sports in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the agreement, Iowa reinstated the women’s swimming and diving program and add another women’s sport.

Iowa added women’s wrestling, the first among Power Five schools to compete this year.

A lawsuit brought by former football players alleging racial discrimination within the program was settled for $4.2 million last March, which prompted state auditor Rob Sand to call for Barta’s ouster.

“Gary Barta’s departure is a long time coming given the four different lawsuits for discrimination that cost Iowa more than $11 million,” Sand posted on Twitter.

The university did not allow taxpayer money to be used for the settlement with the former players.

Barta led Iowa through $380 million of facility upgrades, including renovation of Kinnick Stadium, the construction of a new football facility, a basketball practice facility and a training center for the wrestling teams.

Under Barta, Iowa has had just one head football coach (Kirk Ferentz), women’s basketball coach (Lisa Bluder) and wrestling coach (Tom Brands). All were in place when he arrived.

Barta has also come under scrutiny for allowing Ferentz to employee his son, Brian Ferentz, as offensive coordinator. To comply with the university’s nepotism policy, Brian Ferentz reports to Barta.